During my 30 years working in business, I would say that the leaders I worked for fell into one of the following three categories: The good; The bad; and the Toxic.
Working for Good bosses was great, they really helped me grow, they challenged, gave me opportunities to grow and also lots of success.
The Bad, well they were just incompetent, poor leaders who had little to no clue on how to lead people, and I just needed to work around them, try and keep them from causing problems and trying to be successful in spite of them rather than because of them. At times it was frustrating but bearable.
Not surprisingly, I cannot say the same of Toxic bosses. These were without doubt some of the most stressful, impactful, demotivational, frustrating and downright horrible moments of my career. Whilst these toxic bosses only represent a small portion of my career, these are the ones I remember most vividly, had most impact on me and I would never want to wish upon another person.
They also taught me some valuable leadership lessons, and here are five things I learned from toxic bosses that I’d like to share.
Stress in business is normal. We’re always working to tight deadlines, dealing with difficult situations or customers, working with reduced budgets and trying to do more with less. In a competitive environment that’s totally natural.
Toxic bosses create a different type of stress. One that isn’t normal or necessary it’s manufactured by the toxic culture that they create. It’s that stress of not knowing what’s going to happen, who’s going to get shouted at, belittled, blamed or even fired for whatever takes their whim. With one boss it got so bad, I not only used to dread having to present to him, I used to dread going to work in case I bumped into him. When my phone wrong my heart would race, and not in a good way, but with dread wondering whether he was calling me not. Toxic bosses probably accounted for less than 10% of my professional career and yet accounted for well over 50% of the sick days I have taken.
It’s not just that toxic bosses make you start to doubt yourself, have you spend time worrying about your work which reduces your efficiency. But they also can prevent work from happening. I’m usually someone who likes a challenge, will take on extra work and go the extra mile. But with my most toxic of bosses, I tried to do the absolute minimum, not because I didn’t want to do the work, or couldn’t do the work.
No, there were two reasons:
1) I didn’t want to put myself in the firing line. Anytime you had to deal with him it had the potential to blow up in your face, so keeping that to a minimum was just a matter of survival.
2) I didn’t volunteer incase it actually went well and I made him look good. I absolutely did not want him stealing any credit for any additional work that I did, or to help him in his career
The last toxic boss I worked for hired me. He interviewed me, was incredibly charming, complementary and supportive. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity, it felt like we had a similar background and approach to leadership. But that was dispelled day one. Not because of something he did or said to me, but because of what he did to others in front of, not just me, but the rest of the team.
When I asked him about it afterward, he said that the person was a low performer and that he had just had enough and now it was time to be clear and direct about what he expected. I said but wouldn’t it be better to deal with them in private rather than embarrass them in front of the whole team. He said no, it was better to make an example of them so that the whole team would know what to expect.
At that point, the alarm bells rang, and I knew that my turn would come just the same as everyone else’s.
In my entire career, I have never seen a Toxic boss change. They may have toned it down a little, they may have turned it off for a while, but it’s always there just lurking waiting for the right moment for it to come out again. I have even tried to change myself to try and adapt to their style, to try and make it more tolerable, but the only want to get rid of a toxic boss is to quit. That’s why according to research 50% of employees quit their boss and not their company. At one firm I actually challenged a toxic boss, and he said to me “I know I am an asshole, but it’s that that makes me successful, it’s that that helps me achieve the results I do”. This is why most toxic bosses never change, they don’t see the problem, they don’t see the carnage that they create.
When I asked this person why no one wanted to work with him again, he said it was because they were jealous of his success, or that they were lazy and just wanted an easy life.
Toxic bosses see others as the problem and that’s why they will never change.
I appreciate that in difficult times, we need to drive people hard, but doing it with Toxic bosses is not the right answer or the sustainable answer, for either the teams or the company.
Sooner or later, if you don’t deal with toxic leaders, your staff will take the decision out of your hands and just quit. You will lose good people because of toxic leaders. You will create a culture that can take years to replace and it could even damage the reputation of your company which can make you unattractive in the market place. Whilst HR departments review the background of potential employees, those potentials are reviewing you on Glassdoor and if your rating is bad that is not going to make you an attractive proposition.
Toxic leaders are bad for your employees, bad for your company and bad for your reputation and need to be dealt with promptly.